Last week, with President Biden visiting New York and sitting down with Mayor Eric Adams, following the murder of two NYPD officers, the nNews coverage was all about the need to reduce street crime and the flow of illegal guns into America’s urban neighborhoods. Much has been said about the need for more aggressive policing to crack down on street crime – and only passing references to addressing the socio-economic conditions underlying violent lawlessness.
However, the role our economic system plays in leaving so much of America’s housing stock in these communities to fall into complete disrepair has been largely ignored. It’s a crime too, but as we saw with the Wall Street residential mortgage heist during the Great Recession, there’s never a perp on foot for these homeowners and these types of hedge funds who profit the scarcity of affordable housing.
After all, it is the class of campaign donors who praise Congress.
The sorry state of so much of America’s housing stock has resulted in deadly tragedies that are invariably reported as one-time events, but taken together should inspire a national call to action.
“Studies show that poverty is the most important factor linked to unintentional injuries in children,” according to FEMA. “According to the U.S. Fire Administration, fires and burns were the third leading cause of unintentional fatal injuries among children 14 years of age or younger. Additionally, children from low-income families are five times more likely to die in a fire . “
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Last month in the Bronxa high-rise fire that killed 17 people – including eight children – was blamed on a faulty heater and the failure of two apartment doors to automatically close, as required by the city’s building code.
In several news articles, tenants were quoted as complaining that the building was plagued with poor maintenance. They said they regularly rely on space heaters, boiling water and leaving their stoves on to supplement the building’s inadequate heat.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, a newly elected Democrat who represents the neighborhood where the fire happened, said the tragedy was emblematic of “a tale of two cities,” telling WNYC radio: “If you live in a luxury building in Manhattan, you may take fire safety for granted, but if you live in an affordable housing complex in the South Bronx, there is no guarantee that your building will be equipped with a fire safety system. There is no guarantee that you will have fire alarms, smoke detectors, self-closing doors that work, or safety knobs on your stove.”
Zombies that kill
Last month, three Baltimore firefighters were killed battling a blaze at a “zombie house” that had been unoccupied for more than a decade and collapsed on top of them. Firefighters Kenny Lacayo and Kelsey Sadler and Lt. Paul Butrim were working on the first floor when they were trapped after drywall and framing gave way. A fourth firefighter was also trapped but survived.
The Baltimore Sun reported that in 2015, a fire at the same vacant home injured three firefighters and resulted in condemnation of the home. It had been put up for tax sale four times but had no takers.
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“The landlords had also received a citation in 2020 from the city’s housing department for failing to complete the required annual registration,” the newspaper reported. So the house that would kill these firefighters continued to stand for years as a multifaceted monument to failure at all levels of our “stuck nation”. It’s a completely rigged political economy to protect even decrepit property, even when it presents a clear and present danger to the neighborhood and to firefighters and other rescuers.
With this fire, we lost three selfless people who were dedicated to protecting life and property. Yet the community, state, and nation they are sworn to serve allow zombie homes to continue, even though millions of Americans are homeless or homeless.
Anything but the real cause
In 2009, Elizabeth, New Jersey, Fire Captain Gary Stephens, 57, was fatally injured when he was run over by a fire truck while responding to a fire at a vacant home in this town that had been the subject of numerous neighborhood complaints. Two homeless people who lived in the zombie house were arrested. One admitted to lighting the fire to keep warm, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. The second was found guilty of trespassing and was sentenced to imprisonment.
Since the incident was a death in the line of duty, the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety did an investigation which generated a 21-page report captioned “career firefighter killed after being knocked down by fire apparatus”.
“The purpose of firefighter accident investigations is to report the causes of serious injury or death to firefighters and to identify what action may be necessary to prevent the future occurrence of death and serious injury in similar circumstances”, according to the report. “In some cases, new information may be developed, or old lessons reinforced, with the aim of preventing similar occurrences in the future.”
There is a passing reference to the cause of the fire being “vagrants who entered the house and ignited combustible materials found in the house for a warming fire”. The rest of the report puts the fire apparatus, Elizabeth’s fire department training and record keeping under a microscope and offers lessons learned, none of which included considering the deadly consequences of leaving vacant homes as community complaints mount.
These stories are invariably dated in poor neighborhoods of color that remain, more than a decade later, visibly scarred by the Great Recession.
rot from below
As has been widely reported, none of the Wall Street criminals have ever been held responsible for the collapse in residential property values on Main Street or MLK Boulevard that their greed has caused.
This hollowing out of much of America was a bipartisan achievement that included tax cuts for the top tenth of the 1% even as America’s housing crisis worsened. Beltway politicians ignored the human and property fallout even as they bailed out the same banks whose greedy speculation had created the crisis in the first place.
Of course, the national inattention to the zombie outbreak crisis has left the matter up to local and county officials, who have too often been compromised by local real estate and banking interests.
Leaving these structures to rot in place had disastrous consequences for surrounding neighborhoods, which saw the value of their homes plummet. Squatters and drug dealers break in and appropriate it while banks do their best to avoid taking responsibility for their property. And this willful neglect, fueled by systemic racism, has deadly consequences for the most vulnerable among us.
Take into account 2012 fire in the Vailsburg section of Newark, New Jersey, where a vacant house caught fire and the flames spread to a nearby residential property, murder one adult and three children: a 3-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.
Vacant homes of varying levels of disrepair remain a major problem in New Jersey, with thousands of vacant zombie residential properties not only in the state’s urban core, but also in suburban and rural areas. A national real estate tracking service reported that in the fourth quarter of 2021 there were 1.3 million vacant residential properties in the United States.
During this time, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of people who responded to a survey last October believe that finding affordable housing is a “major problem” in their community.
“The survey reflects the sharp rise in house prices and rents during the pandemic that is intensifying an existing housing crisis, particularly in major cities, where housing demand exceeds available supply,” according to Pew. “Cities and States strive to implement policies that stimulate housing production and encourage the increase density in hopes of relieving pressure on the overheated housing market.”
This housing crunch was a precondition for the pandemic and no doubt helps fuel this horrific statistic often cited by critics. Reverend Dr. William Barber: Every year in the United States, before the pandemic, 250,000 Americans died causes related to disparate health care and substandard housing.
Meanwhile, Biden had to throw in the towel on his $1.8 trillion Build Back Better program because he couldn’t even convince all of his own party’s senators to embrace it.
From inside the Beltway, things may look good. But on the streets where zombie houses haunt the block, it’s still marginal — and it’s often the poor and our firefighters who pay the price. Community recovery is not just about apprehending violent offenders. It’s about undoing the damage done by an economic system that thrives on the scarcity of the basics – like a clean, safe and affordable place to raise your children.
We also need to tackle the crime wave in corporate offices.
Learn more from Bob Hennelly about work, inequality and our “Stuck Nation”: